May is National Masturbation Month, and we’re celebrating with , a series exploring the finer points of self-pleasure.
We did it, folks. We spent the past year in quarantine making the most of public safety-necessitated celibacy by buying up all the sex toys and turning the pandemic into a chance to reconnect with ourselves through self-love, explore what sexuality means to us when we’re alone, etc, etc, etc.
Now, we’re fucking tired.
Despite record toy sales, data that was gathered by smart vibrator company Lioness indicates that our relationship to masturbation throughout quarantine wasn’t quite as popping as many presumed. Even the shaky promise of Hot Vax Summer Horn Fest doesn’t seem to be resuscitating our genitals, according to many who took our survey on post-pandemic dating feels to describe lingering fears and anxieties.
Whether you spent the pandemic single or partnered (or both), masturbating right now can feel more like a confrontation or chore than the usual self-care.
Masturbating right now can feel more like a confrontation or chore than the usual self-care.
“For a lot of people having to be with themselves sexually right now is very daunting, almost like a kick in the pants. Because it makes us see how much isn’t there, how much is missing” said Luna Matatas, a sex educator, sexual health advocate, and self-described pleasure-preneur. “Often our erotic energy is the same as our creative energy. So we need new stimulations, new inputs, new ways of relating to that erotic self-sense. And if we’re just kind of in our four walls, unable to express ourselves in the same way sexually, it kind of gets deadened and our libido just adapts.”
After a year and a half of only (or close to only) our own selves as sexual partners, it’s completely natural to grow tired of the routine. Even if you spent quarantine falling head over heels in love with exploring yourself as a sexual partner in new ways, you might now be ending that honeymoon phase and entering the more trying period of this relationship to your sensual selfhood.
Matatas said many of her clients who began the pandemic enthusiastically taking all her online sexual health classes, who heeded this call to seize quarantine as a moment to experiment with new toys or even bondage, are feeling that shift. Now the soul-crushing self-love boredom is caving in, dampening the desire to even find new partners despite it finally (slowly) becoming safe again.
Even I, a fervent lover of all things masturbation and sex toys, have come down with an unprecedented case of Cum Burnout. Just glancing at my adored Lelo Sona — one of the most advanced pieces of pussy-pleasing technology money can buy — causes me to feel an inexplicable pit in my stomach.
Everyone experiences dry spells over the years, with normal fluctuations in libido. But this almost triggering aversion to being alone with myself sexually post-pandemic feels like a whole different beast.
Why masturbating is so hard right now (and not in the good way)
According to Rachel Wright, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert based in New York, there’s good reason for that.
“We need to realize and acknowledge that we’re a totally different version of ourselves than we were before the pandemic. And that’s going to manifest in so many ways, like changes to how we feel and relate sexually, both with ourselves and with others,” she said. Differences in your masturbation experiences, habits, frequency, preferences are all to be expected. “Because our sex lives are really representations of how everything else is going most of the time. And so often, if there’s a disconnect sexually, there’s a disconnect somewhere else. It’s very rare that it’s just a sexual disconnect.”
There’s a laundry list of specific reasons folks could potentially be experiencing post-pandemic low libido, especially with masturbation.
Depression and anxiety skyrocketed in 2020, two conditions that in themselves can impact sexual desire, especially as a common side effect of certain treatment medications. Even if you’re not struggling with a chronic or diagnosable condition, though, the mental headspace we all occupied for the past year and a half is pretty diametrically opposed to sexual desire, Wright said.
“A lot of us got used to waking up to, ‘What the fuck is going to happen?’ That feeling of waiting for the next shoe to drop that’ll take even more of my safety and security away. And we need to feel safe in order to feel turned on usually,” she said. “A lot of us are still figuring out how to escape that place of fight or flight we lived in for so long. Every single morning for months, we’d check our phone and something drastic had changed, our reality had shifted. That’s trauma every single day. So yeah, of course, our libidos are in the shitters.”
Masturbation is often championed as the fuel that fires up the engines of our overall sexual wellbeing, including the partnered sex we can finally start having again soon.
“Our libido is an urge just like hunger or thirst. When you’re too stressed or anxious or feel unsafe, a lot of the time your body won’t want food.” Similarly, our bodies can struggle to register sexual desire while in these states of distress, which don’t usually just disappear without a trance once the immediate appears to be (somewhat) under control.
“Now we’re coming to realize, OK, I can get out of flight or fight. But now, I don’t even want to look at all the shit that’s changed, how much I’ve changed, because that’s really scary.”
More than ever, masturbating can feel like work — work that might be better suited to dealing with in a therapist’s office rather than in our bedrooms while our legs are spread open.
Some people lead happy, fulfilling lives without masturbation. But if you’re here, it probably means you’re going through something different.
“It’s usually this disconnect between wanting to feel desire and not feeling it. And that’s where I would say, look inward: What is either there that’s blocking it, or what’s not there that you need as a stepping stool to get to it?” Wright suggested.
To cum again
So what are we supposed to do now? Wright advises folks try to flip the narrative, reframing that anxiety around being a whole-ass new person post-pandemic into something potentially exciting.
“Ask yourself: What did I learn that can empower me to move forward from this? What is different about this new version of me? What does this version of me need and want to feel turned on? What feels good?” she said.
Aside from not underestimating the trauma of the past year, we should celebrate our successes, however small they may feel.
“You just survived a pandemic. And you’re here, even thinking about masturbating. It might be a struggle, but you’re reading this article right now, looking for solutions,” Wright said.
“What does this version of me need and want to feel turned on?”
Matatas also suggested people try to shift their mindset around expectations with masturbation during this post-pandemic slump.
“Come at it seeking other rewards besides orgasm, or cumming so you can just go to sleep,” she said. Pressure to orgasm can often feed into the cycle of low libido. “There’s this anxiety about, well, if I try to masturbation and abandon it halfway, that means I failed. That I shouldn’t do it again.”
So, “instead of approaching masturbation with the intention of orgasm, make it about just exploring. You can still involve your genitals, but you might want to explore other erogenous areas. See what happens if you touch your nipples, the inside of your thighs, back of your neck.”
Setting a sumptuous ambiance for your senses is key to this method. Whether it’s a new candle or diffuser scent, a sexy playlist, new sheets, or a set of silk loungewear, put effort into turning masturbation into a feast of sensory experiences rather than that wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am functionality. Personally, I’ve found the common practices of mindful masturbation to be particularly great for facilitating that.
“Leave breadcrumbs for your erotic imagination, almost like teasing yourself,” Matatas said. “Allow yourself to enter your masturbation through the mind, then let it land in your body if it wants to.”
Reconnecting with yourself doesn’t need to be contained to the bedroom, either.
“You can do it in sensual moments that are not necessarily sexual, but have the potential to feel a bit erotic. So for example, when you’re brushing your teeth, try to meet your own gaze in the mirror and give yourself permission to be cute, to flirt with yourself a little,” she said. “It gives you a chance to turn regular, mundane, daily moments into a chance to feed your erotic senses.”
Meeting your own gaze might feel very vulnerable to some, which is actually good in theory. Vulnerability is often an important part of experiencing intimacy.
But if that’s not your bag, try bringing that ambiance and mindfulness to your shower instead, giving yourself space to notice how the water feels dripping down your skin, or running your fingertips through your hair while doing a scalp massage. Maybe you bring this mindset to your daily moisturizer application, too. Instead of just quickly lathering up, take a few minutes to indulge in a hand massage, wake up the rest of your skin, give love and appreciation to every part of your body that you touch. Sensual physical motion is also great for gently bringing you back into your erotic body, whether through dancing in your room or doing yoga or (for me) maybe even roller skating.
“It’s about leaving little snacks for your erotic imagination throughout the day to see if we can build up that hunger again,” said Matatas.
For me, the elephant in the room of trying to take this advice is that part of my low libido is tied to low body and self-image from the pandemic. I’ve spent over a year disassociating from my body and abandoning all the usual social norms that used to feed my self-esteem, like wearing makeup or putting on nice outfits. While it shouldn’t impact my sense of self-worth, internalized fatphobia and body dysmorphia make me feel ashamed about perfectly normal pandemic weight gain, too.
“Our confidence is often validated by other people, so when that’s not there, we’re just left with our own thoughts about ourselves, which can spiral,” said Matatas. “But it’s also an opportunity to redefine what sexy is and what sexiness looks like and feels like to you.”
Mainstream conceits around sex encourage us to be very performative about it, even when it’s just sex with ourselves.
“We’re taught it’s supposed to look a certain way, with flat tummies, no jiggly arms, big butts, big boobs, big dicks. But really, sex is about sinking into those erotic feelings and feeling like you belong in them, that they belong to you,” said Matatas. “Be gentle with yourself, too. Think about how this is the body that survived a pandemic. So trust it will rebalance. You don’t need to play catch up with your erotic energy because it’s always there waiting, seeking the right inputs.”
In this moment in particular, it can be especially difficult and scary to actually listen to our bodies and our needs. The sheer amount of things we’ve simply had to live without during the pandemic is overwhelming. Beginning to open that box of unaddressed desires can feel overwhelming.
“But there’s this bigger pleasure opportunity to learn to be able to meet ourselves where we’re at, and what’s possible, what’s not,” said Matatas. “We need to observe ourselves, to notice if there are other needs that need to be met. Because a lot of times we misinterpret our need for intimacy as purely sexual. But you might be desiring a different kind of vulnerability you can feed in a way that isn’t traditional masturbation.”
Now more than ever, it’s OK to not want to masturbate
Above all else, understand just how normal it is to not be feeling yourself at all right now. If you’re content with your life and not masturbating, there is absolutely no need to force it in order to meet some sort of exterior cultural standard of sexual health.
“I really hate the fact that we have this binary. Like either you have a healthy libido and that means that you’re horny all the time. Or you don’t have that libido, and that means sexual dysfunction. The reality is far more nuanced. And it’s so much more of a spectrum,” said Wright.
There are a number of life events during which lower libido is not only expected, but natural: hormonal shifts, becoming a parent, grief after losing someone, changes at work, etc.
“We’re understanding of low libido in those specific, individual circumstances. But when it’s more collective like right now, we start to feel like, ‘What’s wrong with me? I should be able to get through this and still have my libido.'”
But unpacking whatever the past year has done to our sexualities will take some time — and space.
“No matter if you were feeling it before the pandemic and you’re not feeling it now, or the opposite, or whatever sexual state you find yourself in now that’s different from before, it might be one you stay in for some time. And that’s OK,” said Matatas.
Post-pandemic masturbation burnout is real. But it also can be a testament to all the effort you put into getting to know yourself better than you ever have before during quarantine. So trust that work, and your process, whatever pace it takes.
“In some ways, the pandemic actually encouraged people to seek out more resources, to find this empowerment in learning how to satisfy your own needs,” said Matatas. “That’s a big part of moving into a post-pandemic world confidently: recognizing that, you know, my cup can always be filled by me. And then I get to share that with other people if I want. So whether I masturbate 20 times a day or never, the idea of getting to know my erotic self better and entering new relationships with that can bring way better communication, connections, and way hotter sex later.”